Let’s start today’s piece with a list. See if you can identify the statistic in which these players, in order, lead the league:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Joel Embiid
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- Luka Doncic
- Ja Morant
- Trae Young
- Paolo Banchero
- DeMar DeRozan
- Jayson Tatum
- Anthony Davis
- Zion Williamson
- Jimmy Butler
- Damian Lillard
- Kevin Durant
- Pascal Siakam
- Nikola Jokic
I’ll give the answer in a moment, but first, make sure to recognize and appreciate two of this list’s qualities. First, it includes almost all of the best players in the NBA. Second, it includes essentially no outliers; other than Banchero, the top pick in the 2022 draft, every other player here ranks in the top 22 of The Ringer’s Top 100 list. Slotting in here means a player is awesome.
Have you figured it out yet? I’ll dispense with the suspense. This is a list of the 16 players this season averaging at least seven free throw attempts per game. And as Banchero prepares to take on the Rockets and Jabari Smith Jr.—the player whom everyone, including Franz Wagner, expected the Magic to select no. 1—on Wednesday, it’s a good time to take note of his historic free throw rate, because he’s already rubbing shoulders with the most dominant stars in the sport.
Banchero’s trips to the line are indeed historic. His 8.4 free throw attempts per game rank fifth among all rookies since the NBA-ABA merger. Four of the other five rookies with at least eight per game are now Hall of Famers.
Rookies With Most Free Throw Attempts Since NBA-ABA Merger
Rookies don’t typically seek so much contact or garner so much respect from officials. Nobody from the past two rookie classes averaged even half as many free throw attempts as Banchero is now—although fellow rookie Bennedict Mathurin is also impressing in this regard now, with 5.8 attempts per game.
All these extra scoring chances naturally boost Banchero’s production. Look at how he compares with Cade Cunningham, his immediate predecessor as the no. 1 pick. Both players averaged 16 shots per game as rookies, which led to essentially the same number of points from the field. But Banchero, a 76 percent free throw shooter, far surpasses Cunningham given his many opportunities at the line.
Rookie Production From Recent No. 1 Picks
|Point Source||Cade Cunningham||Paolo Banchero|
|Point Source||Cade Cunningham||Paolo Banchero|
|Total From Field||15.2||15.5|
In fact, Banchero already has made and taken more free throws through 25 games than Cunningham did in his entire rookie season.
That’s an incredible sign for Banchero’s ultimate potential as a no. 1 scoring option (and, conversely, one reason I’m worried about the now-injured Cunningham’s ability to ever reach that level). Free throw rate is a “sticky” stat, meaning players who are able to generate lots of attempts as a rookie tend to retain the skill throughout their careers, and players who are unable to do so as rookies tend to remain deficient.
More free throws mean more stable production: Banchero has scored at least 15 points in all but one game so far. In contrast, the Rockets’ Smith, who’s averaging just 2.2 free throw attempts per game, is much less consistent because he’s more dependent on his jumper falling on any given night.
Banchero’s still searching for a consistent outside shot, as he’s made just 31 percent of his 3-pointers (up from 26 percent before he caught fire last weekend) and 37 percent of his 2-point jumpers so far, according to Second Spectrum. But his free throws keep him productive even as he grows into his shot. He scores 21.8 points per game, tied for 26th in the league among qualified players. However, if he went to the line only as often as Smith does, Banchero’s production would drop to 17.2 points per game, which would rank him 57th.
Moreover, as high-free-throw peers like Zion and Giannis demonstrate on a nightly basis, a reliable jumper isn’t even necessary to dominate for players with so much proficiency in the paint. Banchero isn’t at their level yet—he averages nine points per game in the paint, well behind their league-leading 19 apiece—but he’s shown the physical and mental maturation to get there eventually.
“Obviously his physical stature, his ability to use his body to attack the defender and get to the lane,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said last month when asked why Banchero is able to draw so many fouls. “And the other side is his ability to read the defenses. He does a great job coming off, whether that’s pick-and-roll or in an isolation situation, where he reads the angles of the defense and he can attack the rim.”
Out of 40 players to use at least 100 direct isolations this season, according to Second Spectrum, Banchero ranks seventh in foul-drawing rate, next to established stars like Zion, Butler, and Tatum.
Banchero’s barrels into contact also reflect a teamwide emphasis on attacking the rim and getting to the line—a necessity if Orlando wants to score, given its paucity of premier outside shooters. The Magic lead the NBA in free throw rate, according to Cleaning the Glass, after ranking 27th last season. They haven’t placed in the top 10 since Dwight Howard roamed the paint in Orlando.
Despite all their clock-stopping trips to the line, the new-look Magic are still an entertaining team, with a fun, young core and a number of unique, eye-catching skill sets; Banchero, silky smooth Wagner, and highlight machine Bol Bol make for quite the trio of forwards. After starting 5-20, they recently won six games in a row, including two in Boston, before the Hawks snapped their winning streak in the final seconds on Monday.
They’re building for the future, of course, and will probably add two lottery choices next summer, thanks to a top-four-protected pick from the Bulls. But Banchero’s first 25 games suggest they already might have found the leading man for their next contender.
To wit, here’s a list of every rookie since the ’90s to average at least 20 points per game: David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Glenn Robinson, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Elton Brand, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tyreke Evans, Blake Griffin, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, and now Banchero. That’s a remarkable set of precedents for the newest no. 1 pick.
Yet Banchero isn’t just a scorer: He leads all rookies with an average of 4.0 assists per game. He’s also one of six Magic players averaging at least three dimes per contest. The franchise has come a long way since posting about Shelvin Mack’s team-leading 3.9 assists per game.
That egalitarian distribution results in part because the rebuild’s young guards, including Markelle Fultz and the currently injured Jalen Suggs, haven’t panned out nearly as well as the wings. But one order of business for the rest of this season is to see how drastically the Magic need traditional guard playmakers in order to score, or if a creator-by-committee approach will work long term.
“I really believe that in order for us to be successful, it’s got to be by committee,” Mosley said. “Our guys have to learn and want to share the basketball, which they do. They care for each other so much, they pull for each other, and that transfers over when that ball is moving around the horn.”
Perhaps the Magic could adopt a Pelicans-style model. New Orleans doesn’t have a true distributor at point guard, either, but Zion, Brandon Ingram, and CJ McCollum can all handle and create, so they don’t need one. Banchero and Wagner might develop into Orlando’s versions of Williamson and Ingram, respectively.
At the very least, Banchero has already begun to mimic other Zion traits, most notably his fellow one-and-done Blue Devil’s penchant for drawing contact at an elite rate. Compared to the rest of the sport’s free-flowing action in this fast-paced era, free throws are boring and static and stale. But Banchero is making them exciting, just because of what they signify about his present production and future potential.
Stats are current through Monday’s games.